Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Story of the Week: A Tale of Cremona

Azazel from Colin de Plancy's
Dictionnaire Infernal (1825).
In "A Tale of Cremona" from Fear and Trembling, M. L. Archer weaves a devilish conspiracy into the history of the violin. The narrator of the tale is a Signor Crescenzo Clemente who has recorded the events surrounding the invention of the violin in his journal. Clemente writes: "I have reached the shadows of my life and feel I must confess the sin which burdens my soul while there is still time. I pray God will show mercy to an old and feeble man." He then refers to the creation of the violin as a "blasphemy which may yet unravel the world." Archer has whet the reader's appetite with an intriguing introduction and delivers on her promise.

As a young man in sixteenth-century Cremona, Italy, Clemente belongs to a cult headed by a "magician" named Alberto Fortuno. Fortuno and his followers worship Azazel*, "one of the great elder gods." According to Fortuno, the "False One" has imprisoned Azazel and it is their duty to set him free. During a ceremony replete with chanting, incense, and animal sacrifice, Fortuno drinks blood from a sacrificial goat and then, blindfolded in a darkened chamber, he draws the plans for a "device capable of opening doors to the unseen world," an act Clemente describes as the counterpart to the revelation of the plans for the Ark of the Covenant. When the drawing is complete, Furtuno announces:

“Brothers! See now! We will build an instrument that shall resonate through out the heavens. As the False One brought His creation into being with a single spoken sentence, we shall become its master’s with a single played song. It speaks with the voice of a human and will clear the way for our Lord Azazel. We are to call it—the violin.”

Fortuno chooses Clemente and Marcus Vicente--the nephew of the carpenter Guiseppe Amati--to build the violin. When complete, Fortuno organizes a ceremony on a hilltop outside Cremona to "baptize" the new instrument with the blood of "corrupted innocence." According to Fortuno, the spirits of the fallen will enter the instrument when it is baptized and these spirits will seek out the right person to play the violin and free Azazel. As the crowd calls the fallen angels by name, Clemente feels chilled and then his heart skips a beat when the sacrificial victim—a young girl whom he has seen and admired in the market—is bound to the altar. Fortuno chooses Vicente to corrupt the girl but the "honor" is short-lived as Fortuno drives a spike through both Vicente and the girl and uses Vicente's blood to mark the instrument. The ceremony opens Clemente's eyes.

But—what had [Vicente] done? A faithful servant, cheerful friend, lead into deception and now death by treachery. What had the girl done other than exist as a reflection of God’s beauty?

I gazed at the violin and knew the truth. We were monsters.

The ceremony is interrupted by an attack from enemies of Cremona. Fortuno and many followers at the ceremony are killed, but Clemente escapes with the consecrated violin. He is at a loss. What is he to do with the violin?

I thought at first I should destroy it. This instrument of death and dark magic held demon blood. But the more I studied it, the more its beauty captivated me. Though born of evil, perhaps its creation might yet bring some good into the world.

Suddenly, I knew what I would do. The violin had touched, not demon blood, but the life source of a much-loved nephew. I would finish the violin and present it to Vicente’s uncle, Guiseppe Amati, so that their family might have some token of the nephew they lost.

Readers familiar with the history of the violin will recognize the name Amati. Guiseppe's son is Andreas Amati, who is credited with creating the violin. After delivering the violin to Amati, Clemente joins the navy and spends many years away from Italy. When he returns to Cremona, he hears a sound in the street that makes his blood run cold.

Archer deftly combines fiction and history in her story, which leaves the reader wondering about that stringed instrument that can sing so beautifully in the right hands (and screech so horribly in the wrong hands). The narrative has a creepy, authentic feel. The only thing I find wanting in the story is an explanation of Fortuno's channeling. Is it a magician's clever trick? Clemente believes it was not a trick. Traditionally, evil is not able to create anything. It can only corrupt what God has created. To borrow a term from Tolkien, designing a new instrument is an act of sub-creation. Is evil capable of sub-creation? What is the difference between creating and corrupting? Beauty, as Archer suggests, can cut both ways.

*Note: According to the entry on Azazel from, "Azazel enjoys the distinction of being the most mysterious extrahuman character in sacred literature." Azazel is mentioned in Leviticus as the recipient of the scapegoat who is left in the wilderness after taking on the sins of the people. The implication is that sin is being returned to the ultimate source of all impurity, which implies that Azazel is another name for Satan. Other scholars believe that "Azazel belongs to the class of 'se'irim,' goat-like demons, jinn haunting the desert, to which the Israelites were wont to offer sacrifice."

To read more about M. L. Archer and her writing, visit her website at

Friday, May 18, 2012

Story of the Week: The Unicorn Dilemma

Lamia (1905),
John William Waterhouse.
Ronald Ferguson's "The Unicorn Dilemma" from the March 2012 issue of puts a new twist on dragon hunting. The story begins with mention of sacrificing a virgin to the forest dragon and then we see MaryLynn, wearing a white dress with a red rose in her lap, sitting on a log. A manacle binds her wrist to an oak, but something is not quite right. "With a deft squeeze of her hand, she slipped the iron from her hand, massaged her wrist, and then restored the bond." A unicorn comes through the woods, nervously approaches MaryLynn, and bows its head for her to stroke. The arrival of a knight frightens away the unicorn. MaryLynn resumes her place and patiently waits to be liberated, but it appears the knight plans to liberate the manacled virgin of something else.

She arched an eyebrow, smiled, and said to the knight, "I suppose you are here to slay the dragon and save the virgin."

The knight stepped forward, peeled off his gloves, and loosened his tunic to reveal his chainmail shirt. "Actually, I have a completely different strategy in mind." He let the gloves drop to the ground and pulled at the waistband that bound his tunic.

A blast of dragon breath puts an end to the knight's quest and his super-heated armor roasts him to a crunchy morsel. MaryLynn is no damsel in distress.

King Wilhelm, who has lost a few knights to the forest dragon, finds Sir George's story difficult to believe.

"You say that the forest dragon is actually a girl who lures knights to their death. She sounds more like a witch to me."

"She is no witch," George said. He hated these sessions at the royal court. The solitude of the open countryside suited him much better. "She is at times a girl, a gentle, beautiful girl at that. At other times, she is a dragon, an impressive, ferocious dragon, thrice the size of a warhorse. But she casts no spells nor brews any potions."

When questioned further George admits that he heard about the damsel/dragon from a unicorn. King Wilhelm commands George, who has already slain three dragons, to take care of the forest dragon, no matter what it is. George carries no armor to his confrontation with MaryLynn, only a poniard. "'Each dragon requires its own approach,'" he tells a squire.

I won't tell you exactly how George defeats the dragon. He enlists the unicorn to stab at MaryLynn's weakness with a weapon far more powerful than steel. The battle between the dragon intent on slaying knights and the knight intent on slaying dragons is a study in opposites: love versus hate and trust versus mistrust. Ferguson deviates from dragon lore--MaryLynn appears to have no hoard of shiny things, only a taste for knights--but pulls off an entertaining tale with unexpected twists. I'm left wondering what's going to happen when the dragon gets hungry again.

To learn more about Ronald Ferguson and his writing, check out his website at

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Interview with Keven Newsome

WinterKeven Newsome is the author of Winter and an upcoming sequel. For my review of Winter, go here.

Chapman: Tell us more about the demon Xaphan.

Newsome: According to actual demonology, Xaphan was the demon whose idea it was to set fire to Heaven during the angelic revolt. When the fallen angels were cast out Xaphan was punished, given the task of fanning the flames of Hell. Google him or look him up in Wikipedia.

Chapman: Winter contains two parallel narratives about the protagonist separated by four years. How did you develop the novel's structure of parallel stories? Which story came first?

Newsome: What a tricky question! I'll answer the second first. Neither story came first. The story is ultimately about Winter's fall and restoration. It was always about who she is and how she became that way. In order to tell that story I felt it best to use two parallel timelines, one to show her before her fall and the other to show her after her redemption. As I developed the structure, originally I wrote single chapters from the primary (current) time with a short parallel scene stuck in the middle somewhere. Those short scenes sometimes grew into full chapters or sometimes got moved around to better build the story. Did I outline them separately? No.

Chapman: Did this story grow out of your interest in supernatural theology?

Newsome: I've always had some interest in supernatural theology, but the answer is no. I knew I wanted to write about a girl with prophecy long before I knew I wanted to study supernatural theology. The two things, though related, really grew separately in my life. The Winter books are the only ones I have planed right now that deal with the supernatural in a realistic manner.

Chapman: Winter and Claire experiment with magic. The first spell appears to work but the second set of spells appears to backfire. Please comment on Winter's dabbling in spell casting.

Newsome: Sorry. Spoilers. You're asking about information that will be in the 2nd book!

Chapman: God communicates to Winter through cryptic dreams and premonitions. In one instance, phone numbers are recorded as the number of times a bell rings. Why doesn't God speak directly to Winter as He did to Moses through a burning bush?

Newsome: It would be nice if God did that same thing twice. But he seems to enjoy being creative. I'm sure Joseph would like to ask the same question.

You've got to look at the substance of what's happening with each occurrence. When someone in the Bible has a dream, is it cryptic? Usually. The Interpretation of Dreams was a gift. Joseph and Daniel both did this. When God actually showed up, did he look the same? Nope. A man (Abraham), burning bush, wheel within a wheel, cloud, pillar of fire.

And when God spoke directly to the prophets, he was giving them a message to deliver. Winter hasn't received her message yet.

Chapman: What can you tell us about the next book? Will you continue with the dual narrative structure?

Newsome: The dual structure will continue through the entire four book series, ending in the past timeline where the present timeline began in the first book. It'll come full circle to show the reader eight years of Winter's life. As for book 2? I'm not telling anyone anything. Yet.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Two Stories Out

Two of my stories have seen the light of day. The first is "Shelter from the Storm," another contribution to Splashdown Books' Avenir Eclectia project.

Avenir Eclectia is... THE PLANET THE UNIVERSE FORGOT ...a multi-author microfiction project, based in a world with flavors of science fiction, fantasy and supernatural genres.

"Shelter from the Storm" continues a storyline featuring Elihu Simmons—a character I'm burrowing from another author—that I began with "A Fortuitous Stumble." In this episode, Elihu finds shelter in a "relatively comfy" cave whose former owner appears to have abandoned it.

Father Grim's StorybookWhat happens when you mix pride and revenge to create a toxic pie? Check out my story "Sixpence And Rye And A Snake In A Pie" in Father Grim's Storybook to find out. The stories in this collection are dark retellings of nursery rhymes and fairy tales. "Sixpence And Rye And A Snake In A Pie" draws on "Sing a Song of Sixpence."

Here's an excerpt from the story:

The Cook stared out the back window of the kitchen, grinding his teeth. Godfrey was telling Marian funny stories. Her laughter joined the music of songbirds in the garden, and there could be nothing funny about hanging out the laundry. A blackbird perched on the garden wall, swiveled its head in their direction, and cawed. “Do something, you scrawny bird,” whispered the Cook. “Nip off his nose. It’s what he deserves.” Seducing the help. Couldn’t he be a more original wretch? Where were that boy’s parents? The Cook well knew the answer. Mr. Stuart was clinking gold sovereigns in his study; Felicity was sneaking bread and honey in the parlor. The Cook snorted at the thought of everyone engaged in their favorite vice. Nothing good would come of Godfrey’s flirtations, absolutely nothing.

The Cook rolled out another rye dough crust; a pocketful sufficed for the flavor, and fitted it to a pie dish. “Blackbirds in a pie made with rye,” said the Cook aloud to no one but himself. “Humph. The old boar doesn’t deserve the effort.”

Two sharp raps at the side door, unexpected, like the peals of church bell announcing a death, startled him out of his uncharitable thoughts. A young boy waited on the steps outside. “Got a message for a Mr. Fawkes, the cook.”

“I’ll take that.”

The boy whisked the envelope out of reach, grinning as he presented his open left palm. “Gotta make a living.”

The Cook pulled a penny from his coin purse, chafing at the messenger’s cheekiness, and dropped it in the boy’s hand. The letter came from Mr. Robert Catesby, addressed to Mr. Guy Fawkes in a florid script. The Cook put the letter aside on a clean corner of the table to let it lie while he savored the sweet taste of what he hoped it might say before swallowing the bitterness of what he feared it would say. He thought the response too swift, which might be good but more likely bad, a perfunctory rejection. How many times had Mr. Catesby tasted his cooking at York Manor? Was the meat savory on those occasions, the soup delicious, or only ordinary? He decided to finish all the pies before opening the envelope but ripped it with a paring knife before he had rolled out another crust.

A few lines of cursive on a single sheet, he took in the note in an instant and cried, “Hallelujah, hallelujah,” as he jigged around the worktable, his thick chin bouncing with each hop. Raising his clasped hands overhead, he shook them and said, “Prayers are answered. Prayers are answered.”

A fleeting movement, the shadow of a ghost, jolted his senses. He shrieked at the sight of his long dead wife at the window; her translucent skin and eyes in the full bloom of youth stretched over a grey skull looming beneath rosy cheeks. No. He stared at Marian and Godfrey staring back at him. He shook his head to clear his delirium. “A new recipe,” he said, pointing at Mr. Catesby’s note. The pair smiled at one another and returned to the laundry. “Better times are ahead,” he thought, “much better times, Marian.”

Friday, May 11, 2012

Story of the Week: The Castle of Ashes

The Enchantress (1907),
Frederick Stuart Church
Alexandra Seidel's "The Castle of Ashes," in the Spring 2012 issue of The Red Penny Papers, is a fairy tale in the old tradition told to you, the reader, by a wise and charming narrator. It's about a princess and her father the king in a time long past when the world was different. As the narrator explains:

Once, the world was a wilder place. Spirits and ghosts and whatnot roamed freely, and for the most part, they could do as they pleased. No, not today. Things changed, I know they did, but that is not what I’m trying to tell you.

When I say the story is a traditional fairy tale, I mean it doesn't pull any punches. There's a threat of incest and of course some bloody violence. The tale is set in a small town nestled near some mountains and jungle, civilization abutting the wild. There is a tower in the village which still stands and looks over the town and jungle. The narrator says the "tower was once called the Tower of Mists because you could see into the mists from there; dark, thick or curling, you could watch as they formed and reformed themselves over the jungle’s sky-reaching leaves." These mists once had magical qualities but are now faint echoes of their past glory, "void of color and spell." The narrator is very much a character in the story and frequently chides the listener to pay attention and not get all indignant about the way things used to be. The narrator says "I may be a relic, the old king used to call me that as well, but there is wisdom in history, and who better to tell you about history than its most infamous relic?"

The protagonist is Liqin, a beautiful princess whose "skin was fair as mother of pearl, and her black hair was long and straight and felt just like silk." Her father the king loves Liqin very much, so much that he can't stand to part with her and rues the day when he will have to give her away in marriage. The narrator says that "the king’s heart had some sort of twist in it, something truly sinister," which leads him to decide to keep his daughter at home by marrying her himself. Liqin grieves as preparations for the marriage proceed. The princess is not a fool and "had seen her father look at her, and she knew what this marriage would mean."

One day, Liqin is in the garden adjoining the king's house, crying over her fate. The garden is near the jungle. A thick mist rises from the jungle, enters the garden and curls around Liqin. The mist holds the terrified girl in its grip and then transforms into a tiger but not just any tiger.

His fur was not just orange and black, it was searing iron and mountain core; his eyes were two furnaces and they burned hot, even as Liqin looked into them. His tongue ranged from sensual and soft to demandingly thirsty and back again, and his teeth and claws were so undeniably the manifestation of death that even death’s priests would have crumbled before them to beg for mercy.

The tiger questions Liqin about her sorrow and tells her, in a way, what she must do. Liqin must choose between tears or claws and teeth. She must decide if she is wild and untamed like the tiger.

In "The Castle of Ashes," Seidel succeeds in bringing story and storyteller alive. The narrator says this is a story about how "you take your fear and you throw it on a high pyre and you light that pyre and watch it burn to nothing." On the surface, that's certainly true, but "The Castle of Ashes" also tells us something about love gone wrong and twisted, about the separation of parent and child, and about storytelling, how the mythic past is as relevant today as ever, how the magic of the past lives on in these tales. Is the narrator reliable? She rules the telling as an absolute monarch, choosing the details, choosing how to color her characters. "Others might have seen [events] differently," the narrator admits, "might have described the king as noble, but not I." She admits that stories become distorted but insists that there is wisdom in the past.

To learn more about Alexandra Seidel and her writing, check out her blog at

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Word of the Week: Bug

The Ghost's Petition (1910),
Emma Florence Harrison
Bug is a word that you would think has a very earthy history. Bugs are insects or germs, any of those little things that crawl around and generally annoy us. (Bugs in software don't crawl around, but they certainly annoy us.) However, the etymology of bug is anything but earthy. It's rooted in the supernatural.

The earliest use of bug in relation to insects is from the 1620s, a reference to bedbugs. Bug likely derives from the Middle English word bugge, which means something that is frightening, like a hobgoblin, specter, or scarecrow. (I certainly find bedbugs frightening.) Bugge is probably related to the Low German word bögge, meaning goblin. The frightening part of bug's meaning is now obsolete but carries forward in the words bogey, bugbear, and bugaboo. The Scottish word bogill, meaning goblin or bugbear, and the obsolete Welsh word bwg, meaning ghost or goblin, probably influenced bug's etymology.

So what about those other words that carry on bug's frightening standard?

Bugaboo has been associated with a demon named Bugibu from "Aliscans" (1141), an Old French poem. Bugaboo may have Celtic origins as it is similar to the Cornish term bucca-boo, which derives from bucca, meaning bogle or goblin. In modern parlance, bugaboo means something imaginary that causes fear or something that creates distress out of proportion to its importance. Poe uses it in this sense in the following sentence: " I read no 'Night Thoughts'—no fustian about churchyards—no bugaboo tales—such as this" ("The Premature Burial").

Bogey became popular during World War II as slang among pilots for enemy aircraft. The word likely derives from bogge, a variant of the aforementioned bugge.

Bugbear combines the old meaning of bug with bear to create a creepy, bear-like demon that lurked in the woods and ate children. As with other folkloric creatures, parents used it to frighten disobedient children. In modern usage, the bugbear has been tamed to a metaphor for something annoying or a pet peeve. I think the old meaning is far more interesting.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Story of the Week: Vacant Thrones

The Sorceress (1898),
Henry Meynell Rheam
Michael Haynes's "Vacant Thrones," a flash piece published by Kazka Press, tells the story of a young woman's confrontation with a witch-queen. Armed with an ax and an amulet secreted beneath her tunic, Cymara has bartered her inheritance and hacked her way through an enchanted forest to arrive at the thrones of Qarin the Witch-Queen. Qarin sits in the grand, central throne, while the "two bone-wrought chairs flanking her were empty, as they had been for years." Qarin has a claim on Alain, the object of Cymara's love, and until he is released from the Witch-Queen's claim, Cymara cannot hope to have a life with him. Cymara boldly demands that Qarin release the claim which Cymara argues the Witch-Queen can never consumate, but Qarin offers something unexpected in response.

"Alain of Myrdd was granted to me by his parents to be the consort of my eldest daughter. I will not release him.”

Cymara’s eyes flicked to the vacant thrones where Qarin’s own consort and her only child, a son who died in battle, had once sat.

“And why do you care, daughter?”

Cymara laughed. “I am not your daughter.”

“But you could be. I need no consort, no blood offspring, to mold an heir. A willing woman could fill that role. She could sit beside me, and her consort as well.” Qarin leaned slightly forward. “You come here for love.” The word sounded foul to Cymara in this place. “I can offer you something better than love.”

Cymara has a difficult choice. Attack the Witch-Queen and end the claim by force or become the Witch-Queen's daughter. The latter appears to be the easier path, but what will she give up?

Haynes creates palpable tension with Qarin's surprise offer. In the brief space of a flash story, he succeeds in setting the context, creating conflict, and resolving that tension with a satisfying conclusion. Although I like the tale as it stands, there's plenty of material here to expand this into a much longer story. I would like to know more about the Witch-Queen and Cymara's past.

Just for fun, I searched on the name Qarin and came across some interesting results. A Wikipedia article states: "A qarin, according to Islamic literature, is a jinn. Qarins are unique to each individual. Qarin literally means 'constant companion'. A qareen pushes a person to do evil things and to disobey Allaah, with the exception of Muhammad." Samuel M. Zwemer makes similar claims in his book The Influence of Animism on Islam (1920). In chapter 6, titled "The Familiar Spirit Or Qarina," Zwemer states:

Among all the superstitions in Islam there is none more curious in its origin and character than the belief in the Qarin or Qarina. It probably goes back to the ancient religion of Egypt, or to the animistic beliefs common in Arabia as well as in Egypt, at the time of Mohammed. By Qarin or Qarina the Moslem understands the double of the individual, his companion, his mate, his familiar demon. In the case of males a female mate, and in the case of females a male. This double is generally understood to be a devil, shaitan or jinn, born at the time of the individual's birth and his constant companion throughout life. The Qarina is, therefore, of the progeny of Satan.

I don't know if Haynes intends to pull that mythology into the character of his Witch-Queen, but it adds a new dimension to Cymara's conflict.

To learn more about Michael Haynes and his writing, visit his blog at

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Review of Winter

WinterKeven Newsome's Winter is a story about beginning, about starting over and reinventing oneself, but it's not just one such story. The novel contains two parallel stories that play off of each other. The protagonist of both stories is Winter Maessen, a teenager from a broken home coming to terms with the death of her mother from cancer and becoming a prophetess, i.e. receiving somewhat cryptic messages from God. Strangely enough, she handles becoming a prophetess much better than the death of her mother. Winter is also about facing evil head on, having confidence in yourself, and being careful about the friends you pick.

Four years separate the parallel narratives. In the earlier one, Winter learns that her mother is terminally ill and will be moving into a hospice care home. Although her mother is a devout Christian, Winter has doubts and questions why her mother's god would allow someone like her mother to suffer. Winter will be moving in with her father (her parents are divorced), which means moving to a new town and a new school. Winter has difficulty making friends at the new school and suffers some cruel practical jokes. (A couple boys smash meatloaf into her hair during lunch.) Eventually, a small coterie of students accept her. They lead Winter down a strange path. Claire—a victim of abuse at the fists of her father—becomes Winter's best friend. Claire convinces Winter to become a Goth, to dress all in black as an outward sign of their inner feelings. Winter follows them to vandalize an animal research center. Winter is arrested while the others escape. Claire seeks Winter's forgiveness and then convinces Winter to join her in casting spells to end the physical abuse from Claire's father and heal Winter's mother.

The second narrative picks up when Winter's father drops her off on her first day as a freshman at Tishbe University, a small Christian school that Winter's mother attended. Winter is still a Goth but both she and her father have become Christians. Winter knows no one at the new school and her Goth attire attracts attention, not all of it good. Winter's roommate is a cheery, pink-loving girl named Summer. (Newsome has a sense of humor.) Winter acquires some friends in her dorm who see past Winter's Goth clothes. But, all is not well at Tishbe University. There were attacks on some students the previous year and these attacks continue. Following a premonition, Winter succeeds in thwarting one of the attacks. As she and her friends investigate further, following Winter's prophetic dreams and premonitions, they discover a plot directed by a Satanist to remake the university. Winter and her friends suffer at the hands of the plotters. Winter is held captive and severely beaten. Another student is murdered and one of Winter's best friends becomes the victim of a Satanic ritual.

What I found most interesting about this novel is the way Newsome structures the two narratives. The stories unfold simultaneously with chapters from Four Years Ago interspersed with the chapters from the Present Day. Both narratives begin with Winter entering a new phase in her life in a new setting in which she must make new friends. The chapters covering Winter's incarceration after the vandalism coincide with the chapters detailing Winter's abduction and beating. A chapter from Four Years Ago in which Winter takes part in an animal sacrifice parallels the chapters in which Winter's friend is the ritual victim. So what does all this parallelism mean? I think Newsome is trying to show the extent to which Winter has matured over the four intervening years and how her choices and reactions to problems have changed. Winter's general trajectory in the earlier narrative is downward as Winter finds few solutions and digs a deeper hole, while in the present narrative the trajectory is upward, as Winter enjoys successes and overcomes difficulties. The novel doesn't explain what happened in the four year gap between the two narratives. I suspect that will the stuff of a sequel.

To learn more about Keven Newsome and his writing, check out his blog at